A high level three day conference was held at Tufts University
2/24-2/26/97, financed by a wealthy individual/investor in the U.S. (can't
remember his name) who is deeply concerned about world food issues and
incidentally, close to Novartis. The attendees were top regulatory and ag
officials from the U.S., Europe, Asia and international organizations. They
were able to get Lynn Goldman, Carol Browner, and Dan Glickman to stop by
for presentations, on very short notice.
I found the affair, the agenda, the invitees to be pretty amazing,
simply as a logistic matter and display of corporate pull. Novartis used
the occasional to announce some major news -- especially support for
labeling genetically engineered foods (which helps them, hurts Monsanto;
probably a coincidence?). They got great stories in N.Y. Times, AP, Boston
Globe, and I am sure others. Mardi Mellon of the Union of Concerned
Scientists was the only NGO person there, at least the only one I recognized
on the agenda. Wonder if she went. Hope she will post a report on the meeting.
I hope someone from the Tufts community will report on the meeting
more fully. The speech by the head of agribusiness for Novartis has been
made public. While long, I found it such an extraordinary statement I am
sharing it with SANET. Apologies to overseas people paying for server time
not interested in the attitudes/directions of the major global force in
I am sure this statement will provoke some strong reactions among
some SANET regulars. Please hold your comments and reactions until you can
share them directly, face to face, with Novartis people, and from there, I
hope you will engage them in a constructive dialog. NO FLAMES HERE, please,
it would not be right. I am sharing this to pass around a major statement
by a leader in the agri-inputs industry, NOT to start a thread.
February 24, 1997
Pesticides and Agriculture: Industry Perspective by
Novartis' Wolfgang Samo, February 24, 1997 during the
Tufts University International Conference on
Regulatory Issues in Crop Production and their
Implications for the Food Supply
The Number One message of every publication dealing with global development
over the coming decades is the urgent need to increase crop production. More
people need more food, and the population explosion is outstripping
available supplies. More affluent societies are shifting from cereals to
meat, which requires even higher production outputs.
We do not have enough arable land to keep up with the exploding demand for
food and feed using present-day techniques. Increases in production must
therefore come from the available land. This is only possible if we enhance
yield per hectare or - put differently - if we further intensify agriculture.
Better crop protection products and genetically modified plants can
significantly enhance yield in a sustainable way. But benefits and risks of
innovative solutions have to be thoroughly assessed. This is where the
interests of private companies, regulators and the public have to be
congruent: without innovation there will be no solution to the food issues
Sensitivity about the form of food production should not surprise us.
Developed countries are accustomed to decades of over-abundance. Some of
them can thus afford organic farming. In that kind of luxury, nostalgia for
a less intensive agriculture is understandable. We have to recognize it for
what it is: memories of a golden past, which kept some in plenty, but many
in a state of hunger. It is the historic version of the less intensive
agriculture practiced today in most of the Third World.
I am convinced that we can only solve the problems of global food security
in an atmosphere of partnership between regulators and industry, in which we
focus on what the consumers want and need. In my opinion, that means
constructive co-operation to reach common goals. In partnership, one partner
does not force his or her set of values on the other. Realism must be the
order of the day, not the politics of fear of the unknown nor a zero risk
approach. It is up to us - regulators and industry - to send a realistic
A consensus on how benefits and risks should be assessed is essential. We
need dialogue between regulators and industry, and between both of us and
consumers. This is why I accepted the invitation to this conference; it
gives me an opportunity to express how leading agrochemical companies, and
Novartis in particular, can best contribute to improving the situation.
I would like now to focus on three commitments pursued by leading
agrochemical companies today:
1. The commitment to sustainability
Leading companies in our industry are committed to the sustainability of
agricultural production. At first sight, yield-intensive agriculture and the
protection of the environment may seem to be contradictory objectives.
Ecological fundamentalists want the public to believe that this
contradiction is a natural law. Our industry has not yet managed to convince
people that in most cases, the contrary is true. Global society, in fact,
has to rely on high tech agriculture to safeguard the environment.
Integrated Crop Management, and especially Integrated Pest Management, help
the world conserve its environmental resources, not increase the threat to
2. The commitment to continuous innovation
Our industry has always been committed to providing products which are safe
and environmentally sound. In line with the progress in science, leading
companies have become ever more demanding. They have set higher and higher
internal hurdles for safety to humans and the environment before releasing
Not only new products with new modes of actions to fight the build-up of
resistance but also new formulations, new packaging, test kits, new seeds
and geneticallymodified crops are the results of our endeavors.
3. The commitment to change our attitude
Our industry produces thousands of tons of chemicals which are purposely
released into the environment to control weeds, diseases and insects.
Substances which are by intention poisonous to weeds, diseases and insects.
So we fully appreciate the public interest in regulating our activities and
we understand that we will be fully accepted only when we are seen as
trustworthy and competent.
The crop protection industry's current communication difficulties are to a
great extent attributable to a lack of trust. This lack of trust has its
roots in our past behavior and under-communication. So we must and will
develop a better dialogue with all the stakeholders concerned.
As we, Novartis, live these commitments, we are determined to be open, and
to base our discussions about the impact on health and environment on a
shared set of facts. I have no objection to the occasional and necessary
"emotional decision." I fully admit that people's first reaction to a
radical new discovery can be surprise, even unease, and that they may not
share in the enthusiasm of the inventor. What I am not prepared to accept,
however, is that important social and economic decisions be made on a
non-rational basis. If this happens, much of the almost $ 3 billion which
our industry spends every year on Research & Development is a total waste of
money. And yet the output of this research is a real success story. Ever
safer and more environmentally friendly pesticides have been introduced.
Application rates in some areas have been reduced from 2 kilograms per
hectare to 25 grams with new active ingredients. By just isolating the
active isomer, we have been able to reduce the application rate of an
established Novartis active ingredient by 50% and achieve the same
fungicidal effect. We have introduced the first genetically enhanced corn
which can protect itself against the European Corn Borer, an insect which
can cause yield reductions of 20% and more - and we will continue with this
flow of innovations in the future and we will challenge the regulators.
I do not want to be misunderstood: I fully accept an efficient and effective
regulatory scheme which sets and implements high standards to protect the
broader interests of society. For us, a crucial element in such a scheme is
that it provides a stable framework, giving predictability, plausibility and
transparency - and it should be based on science.
In the context of regulation of pesticides it is appropriate to spend two
minutes on the application of the precautionary principle.
As an industry, and at Novartis, we respect the precautionary principle, now
enshrined in the Treaty on the European Union as a guide for European
environmental policy. But we are concerned that it is no longer seen as an
adjunct to policy making in areas in which, to quote the Rio Declaration,
full scientific certainty is lacking. The precautionary principle is often
being used as a constraint on innovation, through ever higher criteria
applied to define the acceptable level of such certainty. In some cases,
support for the precautionary principle masks an attack on the basic
assumptions underpinning today's science-based society.
I am not calling for an abandonment of caution. Quite the reverse. The crop
protection industry is fully aware of its responsibility to ensure that
every plausible hypothesis regarding potential negative impacts is explored
and discounted before commercialization of its products. This commitment is
evidence of the precautionary principle at work. For us, precaution is an
integral part of risk management, which also includes to place risk in its
proper context, along with the benefits which a given innovation is expected
to bring in terms of higher quality of life, sustainable economic growth and
One goal of any dialogue must be to agree on a set of definitions and
standards by which the precautionary principle can be freed of prejudice
vis-a-vis innovation. Let me explain, what I mean. Instead of talking about
the fuzzy notion of precautionary principle, I would much prefer to talk
about safety factors. What is the right and reasonable safety factor when
determining the concentration threshold of herbicides in groundwater. Is it
10, 100 or 1.000? How does it compare to other safety factors for example of
aircrafts and cars? If you board an airplane it is < 2, for a car is about
10; in Europe for Atrazine in groundwater it is 20,000. If we were to
regulate car traffic in Europe with the same yardstick as pesticides in
groundwater as far as safety is concerned, the speed limit on highways would
be in the area of 100 yards per hour.
I see here a clear lack of common sense. Why is this so? To a certain extent
it has to do with the fact, that pesticides lend themselves as a beautiful
playing ground for populistic politicians. This is not necessarily their
fault - it is ours that we let them do it.
How can we improve the public debate?
I invite more scientists to come out of their ivory towers, and engage in
public debate. Company managers must also get more actively involved than
they have been before. Enlightening the consumer means above all discussing
matters seriously and in an easy to understand -language.
Benefits have to be better explained and eventual risks should be clear, not
exaggerated or dramatized. I believe, for instance, that the present
controversy in many EU countries about the use of biotechnology is due in
part to key scientists' and managers' lack of a public voice. The set of
facts is not being presented. Emotion is not moderated by scientific
This leads me to a very recent issue in the public debate of the
Agribusiness, and which has only partly to do with pesticides: the labeling
of the new genetically modified products. This issue will probably be
discussed in more detail in tomorrow's session, so that I can concentrate
today on some key points. Genetically enhanced products, if we look at their
benefits and risks, are overall superior to conventional ones: otherwise
nobody would buy them. Therefore we label our seeds that we sell to farmers.
If we believe in the right to choose for our customers, we cannot reasonably
argue against labels facilitating this choice. Going down the food chain the
labelling issue becomes very complex and it should be thought out very
thoroughly among all parties concerned - including the consumers - which
options are reasonable, feasible and affordable.
To address public concerns appropriately we have to know what they are. This
is the reason why I commissioned a U.S. market research company to survey
American adults' opinions of the bioengineering of food and related issues.
I wanted to get an overview on the public's opinion on some of the key
issues which we are discussing at this conference; we will make available
the full report at a later stage.
Here are the key top-line results of this survey:
A Onethird (32%) of the respondents say they are familiar with the
bioengineering of food; onethird (35%) say they know little about it and
another third (33%) claim to know nothing at all about the subject.
A Regardless of levels of awareness, onequarter (25%) say they have a
positive feeling about bioengineering of food while 17% have negative
feelings on the subject. 58% are either neutral (37%) or unsure (21%).
A majority (61%) believe that the use of bioengineering in agriculture is
very common ( 14%) or somewhat common (47%).
A Seven in ten (71%) feel that bioengineered food is very safe (21%) or
somewhat safe (50%) while just 15% think such food is unsafe. In contrast, a
majority (54%) feel that food produced with the use of chemical pesticides
A Only one quarter (25%) would be less likely to buy a food product because
it is bioengineered while 13% would be more likely to buy such a product and
56% say it would make no difference.
A Nearly all (93%) agree that bioengineered food should be labeled as such,
including 73% who strongly agree with this position.
In general, to me as a European, these results were far more favorable to
bioengineering than I had anticipated even in the United States. I imagine
that the European guests in this room share the surprise. It is axiomatic in
the field of public opinion that ignorance breeds skepticism and negativity.
This survey shows that greater familiarity with bioengineering in the United
States leads to a higher acceptance in this country compared to Europe,
where too little has been done in terms of informing people.
I learn from this, and I might be overemphasizing the European point of
view, -that we, the industry, have to more forcefully engage in the public
debate concerning pesticides and I invite you, the regulators, to not only
put up a challenging and predictable framework but also to raise your voices
in order to inform the public about the facts.
End of Novartis Presentation.